Fourth National Climate Assessment

In case you missed it…the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released last Friday.

Just in case you were shopping; just in case you were planning for the Winter solstice, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, or Festivus; just in case you didn’t forego your rum-fueled eggnog for the Fourth National Climate Assessment’s noggin-scratching scientific ruminations about our country’s future under climate change…here are some of the report’s highlights with particular attention to climate impacts and key messages here in the Pacific Northwest. Nog up and thanks for reading!

Humans are Causing Climate Change

In the 1850s, scientists demonstrated that naturally occurring atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) acts as a greenhouse gas that traps heat that would otherwise escape into space. Since about that same time, scientists have surmised that adding extra CO2 to the atmosphere would trap still more heat. Fast forward to now. Scientists now know that by burning fossil fuels and changing the Earth’s landscapes humans have increased atmospheric COby 40% since the start of the industrial revolution. This trapped heat is leading to extra warming that’s leading to a litany of climate change impacts.

The Impacts of Climate Change Are Here and We Really Need to Act Now

The United States has been experiencing a fair number of climate change impacts already. (Among other things, you might have noticed that California has been on fire for a while.)

The Fourth National Climate Assessment pays special attention to tallying these impacts and their effects on the US economy.

Climate impacts reviewed in the report include: heavier rainfalls, flooding, higher seas, coral bleaching, droughts, wildfires, and impacts to human health and wellbeing. These impacts are expected to continue under future climate change, and the American economy will not go unscathed. Climate impacts could shrink the US economy by as much as 10% by the end of the century, according to the report.

Climate change, the report continues, has impacted and is expected to continue impacting US: agriculture and rural communities; energy (supply, delivery, and demand); forests; coastal communities; oceans and marine resourcesair quality; human health; transportation and infrastructure; ecosystems and ecosystem services; and tribes and indigenous peoples. Climate change is also expected to disrupt US trade and national security interests.

To lessen climate change’s effects on all these sectors, the Fourth National Climate Assessment’s authors call for “significant” efforts to limit the release of greenhouse gases as well as regional adaptation efforts to reduce climate impacts at the local level. However, in the absence of such significant changes, the report warns, climate impacts will continue to worsen. As the report puts it:

“Without substantial and sustained global mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause growing losses to American infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.”

What’s more, the report continues:

“While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.”

Climate Impacts in the Pacific Northwest (aka the “Northwest” chapter)

The Fourth National Climate Assessment tells a similar story about the Pacific Northwest under climate change (note: our region is referred to as the Northwest in the report).

The Pacific Northwest has already warmed (nearly 2°F since 1900) and will continue to warm under future climate change.

Climate impacts are already affecting the Pacific Northwest’s economy and identity.

Some communities—including individuals who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, tribes and indigenous peoples, and the economically disadvantaged—will be disproportionately affected by climate impacts.

The climate impacts mentioned in the Northwest chapter will be familiar to readers of this blog and include: floodingcostal hazards, and wildfires and other impacts to forests.

In the interest of full disclosure we should note that CIRC and OCCRI’s Philip Mote and Meghan Dalton were chapter authors. Research from CIRC and OCCRI team members also appears prominently throughout the Northwest chapter.

Here we should pause.

Both the Northwest chapter and the Fourth National Climate Assessment can be a bit overwhelming. The report is full of facts—many of them not encouraging in their implications—and it’s easy enough to get lost in the details. Which is why the report’s many authors have been careful to include what the report refers to as Key Messages, important takeaways that might otherwise get lost in the jumble of facts.

The report’s Key Messages for the Pacific Northwest are both clear and succinct. For this reason—and because we want these messages to hit home and not get lost in the busy holiday season—we are going to end this short blog by quoting in full the report’s five Key Messages for our region.

Key Message 1: Natural Resource Economy

“Climate change is already affecting the Northwest’s diverse natural resources, which support sustainable livelihoods; provide a robust foundation for rural, tribal, and Indigenous communities; and strengthen local economies. Climate change is expected to continue affecting the natural resource sector, but the economic consequences will depend on future market dynamics, management actions, and adaptation efforts. Proactive management can increase the resilience of many natural resources and their associated economies.”

Key Message 2: Natural World and Cultural Heritage

“Climate change and extreme events are already endangering the well-being of a wide range of wildlife, fish, and plants, which are intimately tied to tribal subsistence culture and popular outdoor recreation activities. Climate change is projected to continue to have adverse impacts on the regional environment, with implications for the values, identity, heritage, cultures, and quality of life of the region’s diverse population. Adaptation and informed management, especially culturally appropriate strategies, will likely increase the resilience of the region’s natural capital.”

Key Message 3: Infrastructure

“Existing water, transportation, and energy infrastructure already face challenges from flooding, landslides, drought, wildfire, and heat waves. Climate change is projected to increase the risks from many of these extreme events, potentially compromising the reliability of water supplies, hydropower, and transportation across the region. Isolated communities and those with systems that lack redundancy are the most vulnerable. Adaptation strategies that address more than one sector, or are coupled with social and environmental co-benefits, can increase resilience.”

Key Message 4: Health

“Organizations and volunteers that make up the Northwest’s social safety net are already stretched thin with current demands. Healthcare and social systems will likely be further challenged with the increasing frequency of acute events, or when cascading events occur. In addition to an increased likelihood of hazards and epidemics, disruptions in local economies and food systems are projected to result in more chronic health risks. The potential health co-benefits of future climate mitigation investments could help to counterbalance these risks.”

Key Message 5: Frontline Communities

“Communities on the front lines of climate change experience the first, and often the worst, effects. Frontline communities in the Northwest include tribes and Indigenous peoples, those most dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods, and the economically disadvantaged. These communities generally prioritize basic needs, such as shelter, food, and transportation; frequently lack economic and political capital; and have fewer resources to prepare for and cope with climate disruptions. The social and cultural cohesion inherent in many of these communities provides a foundation for building community capacity and increasing resilience.”

OSU_icon_graph_01Pics and Figures:

  • Featured Image: Screenshot from the Forth National Climate Assessment website:

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 2.41.20 PM

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