It’s unethical to pretend Americans won’t feel the impact of climate change

The Trump administration is implementing an unethical strategy to undermine the case for climate action, putting the public at risk to advance the short-term prospects of powerful industries, and it’s an incredible disservice to the country.

White House efforts to dismiss and sideline the science of the recent National Climate Assessment aren’t just frustrating to us as scientists — they’re deeply disturbing to us as engaged citizens. The Trump administration tried to bury the report, which they were legally mandated to issue, over a holiday weekend and discredit the scientific findings.

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The fourth National Climate Assessment is the most comprehensive report to date on how and why climate is changing in the U.S. and how it’s likely to affect us in the future. It represents a collaboration among 13 federal agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) the Departments of Defense, Interior, and Agriculture, the National Aeronautics & Space Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

This was a collaboration of public servants and experts across the country, and it was developed in an extremely transparent manner. The NCA4 went through an eight-step review process, including a review that was open to the public — all 251 pages of comments that were submitted and the author responses are available on the report’s website. 

This is how science is supposed to work — the top experts collaborating, scrutinizing the evidence, and putting their ideas to the test to come up with the most robust, reliable and useful answers.

We have worked in government as scientists — Licker at the State Department and Rosenberg at NOAA —so we know how much work goes into a report like this, and how critical it is for everything federal agencies do. 

At the State Department, this report demonstrates the vital role of U.S. leadership in the world’s science community, and reveals implications of international climate impacts for our national security and trade.

NOAA, where climate weighs on every part of the agency’s work, takes a leading role in managing the climate assessment. Thousands of NOAA scientists and policy experts have deep experience with many aspects of climate change, from weather and severe storm forecasting to charting, coastal management and marine resource management. To dismiss the scientific evidence of global warming is to virtually ignore the important public service that NOAA is tasked to perform.

The climate assessment conclusions, based on hard evidence, are stark, clear and inescapable. Climate change is here and now in the United States, is caused by humans, and is expected to pose increasingly serious consequences for each of us. The report is a huge rebuke to what Trump administration officials have claimed about climate change, and it critically undermines their arguments for rolling back global warming emissions-related policies.

The climate assessment makes it clear that climate change is a matter of health and justice, with some communities at even greater risk. The elderly and children are likely to face disproportionate health effects in the face of increased exposure to extreme heat and weather-dependent diseases like West Nile. Some communities of color and low-income communities could be more exposed to the dangers of climate change if they live in places more exposed to risk or have fewer resources to cope. The report also notes risks for indigenous peoples whose livelihoods and cultures are uniquely dependent on natural resources.

Another thing the climate assessment makes painfully clear is the cost of inaction to our economy. The report has the most in-depth consideration of the economic impacts of climate change ever reported — what we’ve already lost, and how much this could escalate in the future.

These are real, concrete numbers, from the $17 billion in damages to Puerto Rico’s electricity infrastructure from hurricanes Maria and Irma to the $33 billion in agricultural and transportation losses in the heartland from the catastrophic 2012 drought. There’s no option to avoid dealing with climate change — either we work now to mitigate and adapt, or we pay an ever-increasing price in years to come. 

There is one piece of good news, though: Everything we do now to reduce emissions and reduce the risks of climate change will help make our world safer in the long term. The climate assessment makes it clear that there are many adverse impacts of climate change that can be limited or avoided if we take immediate action to drastically reduce global warming emissions.

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Getting on track to a safer future isn't something any one individual can do on their own. It requires collective, transformative actions and policies. We can’t wait for some hypothetical breakthrough to solve climate change for us — we can and must act now, using the tools and policies that are already here. We know we need to ramp down the use of fossil fuels, move to in cleaner energy, and invest in adaptation and resilient infrastructure.

What we need now, more than anything, is political leaders who don’t run away from difficult problems or deceive the public about the facts. Our leaders need to listen to hard facts, roll up their sleeves, and get to work on a path toward a safer future.

Rachel Licker, Ph.D., is a senior climate scientist with the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. As an  American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellow, Licker served as a foreign affairs officer with the U.S. Department of State.

Andrew Rosenberg, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Rosenberg was the dean of Life Sciences and Agriculture at the University of New Hampshire. He also served as northeast regional administrator and deputy director for Fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.