Here's what is actually in the sobering National Climate Assessment

Here's what is actually in the sobering National Climate Assessment
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We are intrigued by “alternative histories,” fictional accounts of how events unfold if a critical turning point in our history hadn’t happened the way it did. What if the Allies had lost World War II? What if a certain scientist had never been born? The idea that our forerunners might have made a different choice at a critical juncture, and subsequently altered our future, fascinates us. Information is often the point on which destiny turns. While bad information inevitably leads to bad choices, failing to obtain information or ignoring it altogether can be just as harmful. 

During the George W. Bush Administration, I constantly made choices that affected the future of public lands, wildlife, and communities across the United States as deputy and acting secretary of the Interior Department. Mindful of that responsibility, I sought the best information possible to inform many difficult choices, an effort that included creating the Interior Department’s first-ever Climate Change Task Force. Congress also understood the importance of information in 1990 when they mandated a quadrennial report on climate science — the National Climate Assessment — to “understand, assess, predict and respond to” climate change.


The Second Volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released last. Its contents were sobering.

The scientific report recounts an expansive list of climate impacts that are already costing industries billions of dollars in lost profits and productivity; contributing to billions of dollars in property damage from sea level rise; and creating significant health consequences from the spread of heat-related illnesses. High-tide flooding has increased by a factor of five to 10 since the 1960s in some coastal communities. in 2010, heat stress was estimated to have reduced U.S. dairy production by over $1 billion. The fire season is over 80 days longer than just a couple decades ago.

The report, prepared by 13 U.S. agencies, compiles vast amounts of data and other research results and offers a glimpse of what may come if we don’t alter the path we’re on. Without significant action right now to curb carbon dioxide emissions, we will be unable to prevent the onset of even more dramatic impacts than those we are already experiencing. Parts of the U.S. will see more days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit – between 30 and 60 more days. By 2100, annual acreage burned in wildland fires could increase six-fold. 

If this all sounds urgent, that’s because it is. What we choose to do in response to the information we now have will determine our future. The Nature Conservancy recently published research that looks at the “alternative histories” that we could look back upon in the year 2050 — comparing what the world becomes if we continue on the path we’re on, or what the world could be if we undertake the task of creating sustainable systems to allow both people and the planet to thrive.

Climate change feels like such an overwhelming problem to many people because the solutions seem inaccessible. While individual commitments to reducing one’s carbon footprint are important, meeting the challenge of climate change is not just a matter of aggregating individual actions, but of creating systemic change – changing how we create and use energy, how we manage lands, how we think about infrastructure, and more.


If there is any good news in all these reports, it is this -- we can make new choices and set a new path for ourselves, one that offers opportunity. By significantly increasing our use of renewable energy sources, we create more, cheaper, and better options to power our future. By changing land management practices, we can increase land productivity, reduce the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and slow climate change. By investing in infrastructure, including natural infrastructure like coastal reefs or tree canopy in cities, we can create communities that are more resilient to the impacts of climate change and have more green spaces to enjoy.

Critical moments like this demand we make good choices, based on good information. The Fourth National Climate Assessment offers a detailed account of the problems we’re up against, and they are serious. But these problems have solutions. If we implement them, we’ll create a better future for our children, one that offers a welcome alternative to what will result if we fail to act.

Lynn Scarlett is co-chief external affairs officer at The Nature Conservancy and the Global Climate Strategy Lead. Scarlett served as Interior Department deputy secretary and chief operating officer.