Report Says Prepare for Climate Change

On May 6, a coalition of more than a dozen federal scientific agencies released the government’s “flagship” report on climate change impacts and responses. The U.S. Global Change Research Program’s third climate change assessment – completed every four years – contains a plethora of information on the subject focused on the science and how each region of the country and various sectors  are being affected.

The 2014 National Climate Assessment (NCA), is the most comprehensive document on climate change impacts in the U.S. to date. This iteration of the report is meant to update the public on the latest trends and science surrounding climate change, and to that end it has been formatted into a website so the information is easily searched, downloadable and shared, both in English and Spanish, on tablets and phones as well as laptops.

For Southeast Louisiana, the prospect is formidable:  severe storms will intensify, and this region is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise because of coastal land loss.

A trio of the report’s  authors presented its primary findings on the Southeast region of the country in a webinar sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists. First and foremost, climate change is not just in the future – it is already happening. Communities across the country are feeling the effects now, according to Dr. Fred Lipschultz, Senior Scientist of the NCA and its Regional Coordinator. “Impacts are widespread across the country and are well documented in the report,” he said, for each region as well as the coastal areas and the oceans.

Secondly, the NCA projects an increase in these impacts, especially in precipitation, drought, warming, and severe weather events. The document confirms that “human activities are the primary cause,” specifically carbon emissions, Dr. Lipschultz said. “We are in control of a lot of the future scenarios, and we can greatly influence the type of climate we are going to see.”

In addition, the report discusses adaptation plans and responses that communities are taking across the country, as a way to disseminate the information for other communities facing similar challenges. “There are opportunities for changing emission levels into the future,” Dr. Lipschultz said.

Paul Schramm from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a lead author of the Southeast and Caribbean chapter, said this region has not experienced the sustained warming that was predicted. The region actually cooled from around 1955 to the mid 1980’s – this “Warming Hole” is being intensely studied, he said, but the cause is currently unknown. Besides that, the last two decades had considerable warming, and 2001-2012 was warmer than the previous decade.

Schramm also discussed the public health implications of increases in ground level ozone, which accompanies temperature rise. Ozone, which originates from cars and industry, is “very harmful to public health,” he said, but capping this pollution would help. “There are adaptation measures that could reduce these negative impacts,” Schramm said.

Schramm presented a map identifying the areas in the Southeast that are most at risk based on the “Coastal Vulnerability Index,” which combines vulnerability to sea level rise and storms and the ability to adapt to them. Virginia Beach, areas of South Florida and the entire Louisiana and Mississippi coasts were highlighted – he showed aerials of the deteriorating wetlands surrounding Isle de Jean Charles, 60 miles south of New Orleans, as an example.

“There is sinking land,” Schramm said, implicating four hurricanes in recent decades and oil and gas production as the primary culprits. The next slide highlights the importance of LA Highway 1 – recently elevated because of the subsidence – as the only road to Port Fourchon, which supports 18 percent of the nation’s oil and 90 percent of offshore oil and gas production.

Researchers of this NCA devoted considerable attention to urban and energy infrastructure for the first time. This topic is of great importance in the Southeast,  because it has experienced the most severe weather events since 1980, said Tom Wilbanks of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the lead author of that chapter. “It is very different to adapt to episodic events than to long term gradual changes,” he said.

The energy section, whose lead authors were both from the private sector, confirmed that extreme weather events are climate change related – the first time such a link has been made in an official document. Beyond impacts from coastal storms and flooding, the report describes how seasonal drought and heat waves increase electricity use in interior states – a concern for energy suppliers.

Wilbanks presented a map of the worst case scenario regarding temperature increases in the interior of the region, showing a July Heat Index of 20 degrees higher than current.  “If it were 20 degrees higher it would be very uncomfortable indeed,” he said.

However, the energy sector is financially capable of responding to this impending crisis, and has taken strides in that direction in the past five years, Wilbanks said. He called out Entergy Gulf States as a leader in this movement, noting that the chapter on Climate Change Mitigation tells the story of industry response.

“I have reason to think the energy sector will respond to climate change,” he said. However, people who work outside or cannot afford air conditioning are at risk.

On the other hand, climate change is a major threat to urban infrastructure, most of which is already overburdened, old and has experienced extreme events, he said, as New Orleans’ did in Katrina. Moreover, rainfall trends indicate that over time more water will fall during a smaller number of extreme events, which further threatens the drainage systems of low-lying coastal cities, including those in South Louisiana.

“That trend has been increasing since the 1980s,” Wilbanks reported. “Under the current track we are on, these extreme events will occur up to five times more severe than now.”

Urban infrastructure is already vulnerable, extreme events add to the stressors, they are expensive to update, and public officials don’t want to raise taxes to finance such projects, he said. But some communities have found ways to address this problem: Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters program taxes new development to fund projects to turn impervious surfaces into green space. Moreover, the American Society of Civil Engineers has discussed revising engineering codes, which are not tied to taxes.

To access the report, visit http://nca2014.globalchange.gov. To view the UCS webinars, logon to www.ucsusa.org.

Colleen Morgan is the environmental editor of Natural Awakenings Southeast Louisiana. She may be reached at Colleen.NOLAHealthyLiving@gmail.com.