Foretelling Devastating Impact, Will White House Climate Report Spark Action on Global Warming?

Thursday, 08 May 2014 11:09 By Amy Goodman and Nermeen Shaikh, Democracy Now! | Video Interview
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A new report warns human-driven climate change is having dramatic health, ecological and financial impacts across United States. The White House’s "National Climate Assessment" details how the consequences of climate change are hitting on several fronts - rising sea levels along the coasts, droughts and fires in the Southwest, and extreme rainfall across the country. It warns that unless greenhouse emissions are curbed, U.S. temperatures could increase up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Reportedly the largest, most comprehensive U.S.-focused climate change study ever produced, the report is being called a possible "game changer" for efforts to address climate change. We speak with Radley Horton, a climatologist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University, who co-wrote the Northeast region chapter of the National Climate Assessment. "This report really tells the story very succinctly about how all Americans will be impacted by climate change," Horton says. "It’s a nonpartisan issue."


NERMEEN SHAIKH: A major new report warns that human-driven climate change is already having dramatic health, ecological and financial impact across the nation. The study, known as the National Climate Assessment, was released by the White House on Tuesday and is being called a possible "game changer" for efforts to address climate change. The study details how the consequences of climate change are hitting on several fronts: rising sea levels along the coasts, droughts and fires in the Southwest, and extreme precipitation across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: The assessment finds the number and strength of extreme weather events have increased over the past 50 years. And it describes an ongoing sea-level rise, which it says will increase the risk of erosion and storm-surge damage, raising the stakes for the nearly five million Americans living in coastal areas. The report also concludes the past decade was the country’s warmest on record, and the human influence on climate has, quote, "roughly doubled the probability of extreme heat events." After the report was released Tuesday, President Obama spent part of day discussing its major findings with television meteorologists from across the country.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The assessment is clear: Not only is climate change a problem in the future, it’s already affecting Americans. It’s increasing the likelihood of floods, increasing the likelihood of drought. It’s increasing the likelihood of storms and hurricanes. It’s having an impact on our agriculture. It’s having an impact on our tourism industries. And people’s lives are at risk. So, the emphasis on the climate action plan that I’ve put forward, as well as this assessment, is there are things we can do about it, but it’s only going to happen if the American people and people around the world take the challenge seriously.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined now by Radley Horton. He’s a climatologist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University. He co-wrote the Northeast region chapter of the new National Climate Assessment.

Radley Horton, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about these overall findings and the significance of your report.

RADLEY HORTON: So this is the most comprehensive look yet at how climate change is already affecting the United States. We’re seeing sea levels eight inches higher on average; in the Northeast, a foot higher. We’ve seen average temperatures go up by one-and-a-half degrees; two degrees in the Northeast. We’re seeing the heaviest rain events already getting stronger. So climate change is already happening, and it is having impacts for all Americans. That’s one of the key messages of the report.

AMY GOODMAN: What makes your report different?

RADLEY HORTON: So I think what’s unique about this report is how comprehensive the voices were that were included in this discussion. So we had about 300 authors. We had scientists, public/private-sector stakeholders, members of indigenous groups, local communities, all getting together and really identifying climate changes that are happening right now, also beginning to propose solutions. And if you compare this report to, say, the IPCC report, with that global take, you find a sort of closer look at different slices of American society here. So we have assessments for eight regions, a variety of sectors. We looked for the first time at some of the ways that impacts across sectors can create double whammies. For example, we looked back at Hurricane Sandy, how we saw failures in the electrical grid having impacts on our ability to distribute food, to keep heat and power on for other people, and how that just created a broad variety of impacts.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you co-authored the Northeast region part of the report, so could you speak specifically about the impacts here?

RADLEY HORTON: Absolutely. So, some of the things that we highlighted in the Northeast are that we’ve had faster sea-level rise than the global average. We’ve actually had about a foot of sea-level rise in the Northeast. That’s already changing the frequency of coastal flooding. We have so much infrastructure along the coast. A lot of it’s aged. It’s critical, everything from I-95 to our rail corridors, Amtrak, commuter railroad; as I mentioned earlier, those electrical substations; wastewater treatment plants. As sea levels rise and we get more frequent coastal flooding, that infrastructure is going to continue to be compromised, and our most vulnerable populations are going to suffer more. But it’s not just sea-level rise. We’ve also seen the fastest increase in heavy rain events, downpours in the Northeast, roughly a 70 percent increase in the amount of rain in those very intense storms just since the middle of the last century.

AMY GOODMAN: What causes these kind of climate changes?

RADLEY HORTON: Yes, so at the most general level, of course, as greenhouse gas concentrations have gone up, we’ve got about 40 percent more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than we did under pre-industrial conditions. That is warming the planet. It’s changing the amount of moisture in the atmosphere. As the ocean expands, it’s causing sea levels to rise. When we start to get into some of the regional variations, why we’re seeing differences in the Northeast versus other areas, part of the story is that the land is just sinking a little bit in the Northeast. But another part of the story—

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?

RADLEY HORTON: OK, so, basically, New York City and much of the Northeast coast is actually sinking at about three inches per century, really just in response to the last ice age. So it has nothing to do with the climate change that’s happening right now. It’s really just sort of the surface of the land sinking down. So we have about eight inches of global sea-level rise. We have a little bit of land sinking. But there’s another factor in the Northeast from a research perspective that we’re looking at: Will the strength of the Gulf Stream change in a way that will cause the ocean height to come up a little bit along the Northeast coast? That’s emerging research. But really, the bottom line is that sea-level rise alone, you know, the sort of central projection is two to three feet this century. You could call that a fairly conservative projection. That will more than triple the frequency of coastal flooding in the Northeast, even if storms don’t get any stronger. You wouldn’t need stronger hurricanes. Just raising that baseline turns what used to be one-in-a-hundred-year flood event into something that you can expect during the lifetime of the typical mortgage.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: You’ve also suggested that some cities and states have taken steps to limit the impact of climate change and reduce emissions. What are some of those steps? Where are those places, first of all? And what more do you think needs to be done?

RADLEY HORTON: Yeah, so I’m glad you brought that up. That’s another way that this assessment really differs from some of the past work. In the last five or six years, we really have seen more articulation of the ways that we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the variety of steps we can take to deal with some of these climate changes that are basically bound to happen. In terms of some of the places that are at the vanguard, a lot of it is cities. You know, certainly think of places like New York; Los Angeles has a climate action plan; San Francisco; Boston.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So what kinds of steps has New York taken, for example?

RADLEY HORTON: OK, so New York City has done a variety of things. They are looking at elevating critical infrastructure, raising homes, also green infrastructure. It’s expanding wetland areas to the extent that’s possible. Also, there have been some strategies to deal with more frequent heat waves that are expected in the future. So this is planting more trees so that we have more shade, putting cooling centers in so to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our population when we have heat waves. Those are a couple of the things New York City has done.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, on the issue of Superstorm Sandy, the intensity of the hurricane, explain what causes this kind of intensity.

RADLEY HORTON: Yeah, so, a hurricane, part of the story—it takes a lot of factors to come together to generate a hurricane. At the beginning, for a hurricane like Sandy, the story starts over West Africa with sort of a small depression, just a low-pressure system that has to form. As it gets out over the Atlantic Ocean, if the conditions are right, if you have a warm upper ocean, if the wind patterns are consistent, that storm can grow and grow. Now, what we can say in terms of how Sandy might have been impacted by a changing climate, there’s really only one piece where the link is 100 percent, and that’s the issue of the amount of coastal flooding. As I said earlier, sea levels a foot higher in the Northeast than they were a century ago, the majority of that due to climate change, that raised the floor. It raised that baseline. When Sandy came, it pushed the floodwaters further inland. It pushed the wave damage further inland.

There’s emerging research looking at questions like how the intensity of the storms themselves might change. Will a warming upper ocean make storms stronger? There’s a lot of reason to think so, but it’s not a sure thing, because we’ve got to look at other things, like how the change in wind directions in the atmosphere could change. Then there’s also even more speculative, but potentially very important research talking about changes in the Arctic, loss of sea ice. Could that actually change these jet stream patterns? If you recall, we had this sort of very unusual configuration that allowed Sandy to take this sort of left hook. It’s too early to say whether climate change could make that sort of thing more common, but from a risk perspective, it may be worth considering. And we can say for sure that higher sea levels are going to increase coastal vulnerability, not just in the Northeast, but elsewhere.

AMY GOODMAN: On the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, then-Mayor Bloomberg here in New York said the city is being rebuilt to better handle future storms.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: If another storm like Sandy ever approaches our shores, it will find a far different city from the one that Sandy left behind, a city much more able to withstand the kind of surging sea waters and punishing winds that Sandy brought. We are building New York City back stronger and smarter so that we’ll be resilient to a broad range of extreme weather events in the future, including big coastal storms.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mayor Bloomberg. Is it true the—New York is preparing, this region, New York, New Jersey?

RADLEY HORTON: I think it is true that New York City has shown leadership. It goes back to before Sandy. Bloomberg convened an adaptation task force back in 2008. We had PlaNYC beginning to look at ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, going back even further than that. So New York City, I think, has stepped up and faced the climate risks. We’re having the climate conversation here. The infrastructure sectors are looking at their vulnerabilities today to things like heat waves, heavy rain events. But we have to keep in mind that these projected changes are very large. And I mentioned earlier, we have aging infrastructure. It’s a major challenge. And I think everybody needs to be at the table in New York City, but also nationally, right, because there’s huge coordination issues involved here, as well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And does the report make specific suggestions as to what particular cities and states ought to be doing to limit the effects of climate events like Hurricane Sandy?

RADLEY HORTON: Yeah, so what the report does is proposes a range of possible strategies. It talks a lot about why we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions quickly if we want to get on a trajectory that avoids the really extreme sea-level rise, that avoids big changes in the frequency of heat waves. And it also talks a lot about adaptation, proposing a range of different strategies.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, news broke that the entire state of California is in drought for the first time in 15 years. More than three-quarters of California is experiencing extreme drought. California Governor Jerry Brown urged residents to curb their usage by, for example, refusing glasses of water in restaurants. Governor Brown said the drought was tied to long-term climate change. He went on to say, quote, "We are playing Russian roulette with our environment." Southern California has also been battling a string of wildfires. This is Governor Brown speaking in January.

GOV. JERRY BROWN: It’s important, first of all, to awaken all Californians to the serious matter of drought, because we’re facing perhaps the worst drought that California has ever seen since records began being kept about a hundred years ago. Well, I think the drought emphasizes that we do live in an era of limits, that nature has its boundaries, and we have to be as efficient and elegant in the way we live and the way we conduct ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to California Governor Jerry Brown? And talk about the difference between what’s happening in the Northeast and what’s happening on the West Coast.

RADLEY HORTON: Yeah, so it’s really important to emphasize that different regions are going to experience climate change in different ways. In the Northeast, we’re very worried about more heavy rain events. In parts of the West, California, and the Southwest, water is a big concern right now, not having enough water. And a lot of the climate change projections suggest that will get worse. We can’t say for sure how much climate change is causing what’s been experienced in the last year specifically, but we can say that higher temperatures are going to mean more evaporation. You’d need more rainfall, basically, just to maintain the soil balance, moisture balance that you need for agriculture. Another huge projection out of the West is a lot of the snowpack is expected to decrease, right, as temperatures rise. That snowpack is sort of the vital reservoir for summer moisture, as that snow melts, provides rain—provides water for the agriculture. If that snowpack reservoir decreases, it’s a huge issue, huge water issue. And along with that decrease in water, more competition for the remaining water and greater risk of wildfires, as you alluded to earlier.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So you mentioned agriculture. What does the report say about the likely impact of climate change on food production?

RADLEY HORTON: Yeah, so the—the story on agriculture is a complicated one in the U.S. The report acknowledges that in the next couple decades, increases in carbon dioxide due to global warming could help crops a little bit for a couple decades. We also do expect to see the growing season expand, right, as temperatures rise.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: How will it help crops? How will—

RADLEY HORTON: Most crops do well when they have extra carbon dioxide. They’re able to basically decrease the amount to which they’re sort of exposed to the atmosphere. They can get that carbon dioxide easier. The bottom line is it can mean that they don’t have to give up as much water. They can sort of hold the water they have better with more carbon dioxide. And also we might have a longer growing season.

But that’s really only part of the story. We have to also be thinking about how pests might change. A lot of weeds are going to do really well with climate change. A lot of insect pests that are damaging to agriculture and ecosystems, more broadly, will do well, as well. So I think in the longer term, and as we look to other parts of the world, the guidance really is that climate change is posing huge challenges to agriculture.

AMY GOODMAN: Fox doesn’t see it that way. I wanted to turn to Dana Perino, the co-host of Fox News’s The Five. She’s the former spokesperson for President Bush. She took issue with President Obama’s focus on climate change, challenging meteorologists to shift the conversation away from climate change and towards, of all things, the 2012 attacks in Libya.

DANA PERINO: Tomorrow President Obama is going to do interviews with meteorologists all across the country about a new climate change report.

ERIC BOLLING: Yes, because the science is settled.

DANA PERINO: I hope they ask him about Benghazi.

ERIC BOLLING: Yeah, there you—

DANA PERINO: Like the weatherman from, like, Montana should ask him about Benghazi. That’d be great.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dana Perino on Fox. Radley Horton?

RADLEY HORTON: So, from a risk management perspective, the question is: Is climate change something we need to be thinking about? And I think this report, just released, makes it very clear that sea-level rise is going to dramatically change the frequency of coastal flooding. It’s going to have impacts on all sectors of America, right? Our ports. Think about all the military installations along the coast, our valuable cities. There are huge economic implications. So, climate change can also be a risk multiplier, can have impacts on the probability of certain types of conflict around the world, too. It’s not just a question of what’s happening within our borders.


RADLEY HORTON: So I think—yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the Midwest?

RADLEY HORTON: The Midwest is an area where we’ve seen some increase in heavy rainfall events, as well. It’s an area where agriculture in the next couple decades may be able to do a little better as those carbon dioxide concentrations go up with a longer growing season. In the bigger term, though, we expect much more frequent heat waves. Those very heavy rain events, those downpours, can pose big challenges.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But in the U.S., there are still some who believe that climate change isn’t occurring, or if it is, humans have nothing to do with it, human activity has nothing to do with it. And even the majority who do believe it’s happening aren’t that concerned about it. So does the report say anything about how to make climate change a more urgent issue for more Americans?

RADLEY HORTON: So this report, for the first time, talks about communication strategies. It talks about ways for some of this climate information, which is being produced to a greater extent than ever before, can actually sort of get into decision making. Just to give one example from the Northeast, in Maine, they’re working a lot right now on basically expanding the size of drainage pipes—it sounds very boring—those sort of culverts under roads. They need to be replaced every year. And when there’s storm damage, they need to be replaced even more frequently. We’re basically mainstreaming making those pipes wider than they used to be to accommodate some of these heavier rainstorms. So the climate information is coming in, and it’s sort of informing decision making in everything from sort of mundane ways—how to expand, you know, storm pipes—to grand thinking about our coastlines.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What impact do you think this report is likely to have on some of the climate policies that the Obama administration is considering?

RADLEY HORTON: Well, I think this report really tells the story very succinctly about how all Americans are going to be impacted by climate change, how it’s a nonpartisan issue. When people are suffering, when people are making decisions about investments, decisions about where they want to live, how to protect their most vulnerable communities, they’re not thinking in a political context. So I think the report lays out, the science is clear: Climate change is already happening. Sure, there are going to be some uncertainties, but from a risk perspective, we know enough already about how rising sea levels are changing the frequency of coastal flooding. Higher temperatures are loading the dice towards more frequent heat events and heavier rain events. From a risk perspective, are we better off considering those changing probabilities or assuming we’ll continue to get what we used to get in the past?

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of the House of Representatives voting—passing legislation that said NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, cannot talk about climate change but only talk about severe weather? Also, the Tennessee Legislature not fully outlawing public transit, but going in that direction?

RADLEY HORTON: Yeah, so, I mean, we need to see these links. Extreme weather events are not just weather. They’re not just something that you predict a few days in advance. As the climate is changing, as sea levels rise, as temperatures go up, the probabilities change. So climate change and increasing greenhouse gases are impacting these extreme events that we know are so critical for society. That’s one of the real messages from this report.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, it’s very interesting that President Obama did interviews with meteorologists yesterday, because they are key in shaping this country’s attitude. I mean, they flash "severe weather," "extreme weather" as their lower third when they’re talking. People often just tune into TV or radio to get weather reports. But rarely do they ever link those two words, "severe weather," with another two, "global warming" or "climate change." In fact, a number on—I’m not just talking Fox, but on the networks are climate deniers. When they speak off air, even sometimes on air, they question whether humans are involved with climate change. Talk about the significant role of meteorologists in all of this.

RADLEY HORTON: Yeah, I think meteorologists are critical, as you say. Local news is still a critical source of information for a lot of people. They want to hear about what’s happening right where they live, what’s been happening recently, that local context in which most people make their decisions. So, meteorologists are a trusted source of information. If they can help sort of spread this message that climate change is already changing the frequency of these extreme events, it’s already changing the context in which people are planting crops, making other decisions about their water usage, it can be a huge additional source of information and help people connect the dots, right, because people are sort of starting to observe some of these changes, but they lack that sort of broader context, in some cases, that this isn’t just a local phenomenon. We’re seeing global changes.

AMY GOODMAN: Should they be certified as a meteorologist if they haven’t had this training or education? Or do they have it, and they just don’t talk about it on television?

RADLEY HORTON: I don’t know enough to answer the question specifically about different meteorologists’ training. I think there’s—my thought would be probably there’s a broad range of perspectives in terms of the background. Some people have probably gone a lot further in their training than others. But, you know, I think you can certainly cite a lot of examples around the country of meteorologists who are bringing in some of this climate information. And hopefully the president’s interaction with meteorologists yesterday will further that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much, Radley Horton, climatologist at the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University. He co-wrote the Northeast region chapter of the new National Climate Assessment, and we will link to the full report at When we come back, a student joins us from Stanford University. They’ve done something very unusual there, though it’s a growing trend. Stanford will purge a $18 billion endowment of coal stock. And it started with a student movement. Stay with us.

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