June 29, 2014

Climate assessment a cautionary tale

The 800-page 2014 National Climate Assessment, which involved more than 300 scientists, engineers and technical experts, was released last month confirming that climate change is an existing threat and accepting that many predictions made a decade ago are “happening now,” as one co-author of the report’s chapter on the 12 northeastern states puts it.

David Wolfe, a professor of Horticulture and chair of the climate-change focus group at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell, has been studying the impacts on plants, soils and ecosystems for 20 years.

He said two things in particular have surprised him; the accelerating pace of the changes and the continued reluctance of policymakers to act. This report, he recently told interviewers, signals that the country is “beginning to move beyond the debate about whether climate change is real or not, and really getting down to rolling up our sleeves.”

The report states that, on average, temperatures in the U.S. have risen by roughly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, with 80 percent of that change occurring since the early 1980s. Annual rainfall in the Northeast has increased by five inches since 1900, with coastal sea levels rising by nearly one foot. During that time, sea temperatures have risen as well, by nearly 2 degrees.

In recent decades, climate change has been connected to intensifying heat waves, increasing precipitation, torrential downpours, more violent weather, sea-level rise and greater occurrence of flooding and storm surge. Coastal flooding has caused billions of dollars in damage and things could get much worse as seas are projected to rise 1 to 4 feet by the end of this century.

It hypothesizes that “heat waves, coastal flooding and river flooding will pose a growing challenge to the region’s environmental, social and economic systems,” and goes on to say that “this will increase the vulnerability of the region’s residents, especially its most disadvantaged populations.”

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