Energy & Environment

Five takeaways from the federal climate report

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The New York Times on Tuesday detailed the conclusions of a major draft government study on climate change — and how scientists are preparing for pushback from President Trump’s administration.

The report is part of an effort that 13 federal agencies undertake every four years to report on the state of the climate and climate science.

It’s government-mandated, but the Trump administration has yet to sign off on the report, raising concerns that the administration could undercut some of its more dire observations and predictions. 

The White House on Tuesday criticized The New York Times for “writing off a draft report without first verifying its contents with the White House or any of the federal agencies directly involved with climate and environmental policy.”

“The White House will withhold comment on any draft report before its scheduled release date,” press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

Here are five takeaways from the climate study, and the science community’s reaction to it.

Scientists are afraid of Trump

Scientists who spoke to The New York Times — those involved in the report and those outside its process — said it was sent to the newspaper because scientists are afraid that Trump will suppress some or all of its findings. 

“We are seeing this report now because scientists, like the vast majority of Americans, do not trust the Trump administration with the truth,” said Liz Perera, climate policy director for the Sierra Club.

A later draft of the report is now under review at the White House before a release, likely later this month. Political appointees may make changes and deletions, although since the process is happening out of public view, there’s no indication about whether that has happened.

The Times story mirrors a series of leaks last month, in which experts at the Energy Department released a draft report on the electric grid. If Energy Secretary Rick Perry or others change that report to boost coal or nuclear power, it will be apparent in the final product. 

The unusual leaks reflect the view held by many experts and Trump’s opponents that his administration is anti-science. 

“When you get down there to [the Environmental Protection Agency], you realize there is constant questioning of everything scientific of EPA that may have any implication down the line to have an impact on the regulated community,” Thomas Burke, an EPA official under former President Barack Obama, told CNN.

The publicity calls attention to any changes the administration might make

The climate science study has been publicly available on a government server for months, but it is attracting widespread attention due to the Times’s story. 

Now that the Times has publicized the draft report, the final climate study will be subject to scrutiny from scientists and others who doubt the Trump administration’s commitment to fighting climate change. 

“This morning, in my country, The New York Times has reported another leak, a very beneficial leak,” former Vice President Al Gore said Tuesday in Berlin while promoting his new climate change film.

“I would like to formally call on the Trump administration to stop suppressing this report, to stop trying to censor scientific information and make this report public so that the latest scientific information compiled from tens of thousands of scientists with the up-to-date evidence of the incredibly harsh impacts of the climate crisis on the United States will be made public.” 

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told CNN Tuesday that “it wouldn’t be a surprise” if the administration tried to suppress the findings of the study. 

The report directly contradicts Trump officials’ arguments  

Trump administration officials say the climate is changing and humans have some influence, but they argue scientists can’t quantify what the level of influence is or what can be done about it.

“There’s a warming trend — the climate is changing,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in April on Fox News.

“And human activity contributes to that change in some measure. The real issue is how much we contribute to it.”

That’s in contrast with the scientific consensus that human activity, via greenhouse gases, is far and away the main cause of recent climate change — and the report sides with that view.

“Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate changes,” the report says.

“Human activities are now the dominant cause of the observed changes in climate,” a later portion reads. 

The study repeats past calls for huge emissions cuts

The report says the only way to avoid the worst of climate change is to take a huge bite out of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Limiting warming to only 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is a key goal of the Paris climate deal, which the Trump administration is withdrawing from. But the report says that reaching that goal will require “significant reductions in global CO2 emissions relative to present-day emission rates,” because humans have already produced about 60 percent of the total carbon dioxide allowable to meet that goal. 

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already higher than it has been in at least 3 million years. Given the long lifetime of atmospheric carbon dioxide, “there will be a delay of decades or longer between significant actions that reduce CO2 emissions and reductions in atmospheric CO2 concentrations that contribute to surface warming,” the report said, raising the stakes for significant and fast decarbonization.  

Climate change is already affecting people

The study’s conclusions reinforce the accepted view of most scientists that climate change is already having an impact on humans, and that the impact will only grow as the planet keeps warming.

The report warns that extreme temperature and precipitation events are becoming increasingly common, both on the worldwide level — such as the global temperature records that have fallen in recent years — and in region-specific ways.

Researchers said that as the earth warms, the U.S. should expect intensifying heat waves and more powerful hurricanes, declining snowpacks and more extensive droughts in the West. Sea level rise has already increased “nuisance flooding,” or flooding that occurs at high tide in cities like Miami, and they warn that declining sea ice in the Arctic could affect the basic atmospheric circulation patterns that move air around the globe. 

Overall, the Earth’s temperature increased more than 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit between 1986 and 2015, relative to the first six decades of the 20th century, the report says. The U.S. could experience an increase of 2.5 degrees over the next few decades, “even under significantly reduced future emissions.”

“Humanity is conducting an unprecedented experiment with the Earth’s climate system through emissions from large-scale fossil-fuel combustion, widespread deforestation and other changes to the landscape,” the report says.

“There is significant potential for humankind’s planetary experiment to result in unanticipated surprises — and the further and faster the Earth’s climate system is changed, the greater the risk of such surprises.” 

— Updated at 4:37 p.m.

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