OK, we have a climate problem — Now what?

OK, we have a climate problem — Now what?

The Fourth National Climate Assessment reports on what countless Americans are already enduring. Calamitous wildfires intensified by hotter, drier conditions; “nuisance flooding” and record hurricane-related rainfalls exacerbated by sea level rise; new health threats such as Zika-carrying mosquitos; depressed agriculture and dairy production costing billions of dollars. And these are just a few of the big-ticket items.

This is not a dramatic prediction of a distant future yet to come. It’s a snapshot of the early stages of climate change. The National Climate Assessment is the latest confirmation that we have a serious problem. The report was produced by hundreds of climate scientists around the country, released by 13 federal agencies, and published by the Trump administration last Friday. It’s a milestone, the president’s “I don’t believe it” notwithstanding.

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The report answers the “so what” question about climate change by detailing its consequences for Americans. It shows how we are already being forced to make tough decisions and how we’ll have to struggle to contain the damage.

“Now what?” is the question that many are asking. Reports such as the National Climate Assessment provide a foundation, but they cannot provide the nuance and detail that will be required for science-based decision making that takes account of local realities and values.

Managing river flooding is but one example of the local challenges that will require local governments to integrate science, decision making, and community values. Do you build levees that prevent flooding in the short term but move the problem further downstream to other communities, and make inundation worse when overtopping does occur? Should neighborhoods rebuild in place after a flood, or do you change zoning policies and use buyouts to help relocate established neighborhoods in a planned way that may retain some community cohesion?

Navigating choices such as these will require healthy public dialogue, community participation, and the ability for local leaders and citizens to query our knowledge of climate change and its potential impacts in a flexible and ongoing way.

Recognizing the need for a more effective approach, in 2016 the federal government convened an advisory committee of local government officials, climate experts, and adaptation professionals to recommend ways to make the National Climate Assessment more useful for cities, states, and private interests across the country. Unfortunately, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Trump says he's considering 10 to 12 contenders for chief of staff Michael Flynn asks judge to spare him from jail time MORE’s White House allowed the committee to sunset within his first few months in office for reasons that made little sense.

Fortunately, work on designing an improved process to support local governments and private-sector decision-makers did not stall for long. Governor Cuomo and leaders at Columbia University and the American Meteorological Society stepped forward to rev the committee back to life and we’ve been meeting consistently over the last year. We plan to release our recommendations in early 2019.

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As our report will highlight, there are significant opportunities to help decision makers obtain authoritative and actionable information they need to help their communities navigate the tough choices ahead. The federal government will need to play a role, but so too will states, tribes, local governments, universities, professional societies, and private sector firms. 

It shouldn’t be too much to ask decision-makers in the public and private sectors to base their decisions about climate change on scientific evidence. The just-released National Climate Assessment provides many useful insights — offering a blueprint for the administration to jump-start an effective national policy of climate change risk management. Equally important is extending the National Climate Assessment to provide local leaders across the country with facts and evidence that will enable them to lead their communities in preparing America for the changing climate.

Richard Moss chairs the Independent Advisory Committee on Applied Climate Assessment, a body of scientists and experts formerly advising the federal government that was disbanded by the current administration and reconvened at Columbia University.