TOPICS > Science > Coping with Climate Change

Closing window for action on climate change offers consequences and opportunity

March 31, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
A UN report warns that the effects of climate change -- flood, drought and food shortages -- have already caused harm, and will worsen quickly if we don’t take immediate action. Judy Woodruff takes a closer look at the global implications with two people who worked on the report: Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University and Patricia Romero Lankao of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A closer look now at the specifics, and the questions raised by this from two people who worked on the report. Michael Oppenheimer is a coordinating lead author of it and a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University. And Patricia Romero Lankao of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, she was a lead author of a chapter about North America. She’s a sociologist who studies the societal impact of climate change.

And we welcome you both to the program.

Michael Oppenheimer, it seems one of the screaming headlines from this is that people need to pay attention. What had been felt to be in the future is happening now. How do you read the main conclusions today?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER, Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs, Princeton University: Right.

We’re already detecting some of the effects of climate change on the whole system we live in. We’re detecting changes in crop yields. We’re detecting changes in the frequency of heat waves, and heat waves kill, and we’re detecting the massive changes in globally important systems like the arctic or coral reefs, on which people’s lives depend and which the whole climate system depends.

So changes are happening and we need to get on doing something about it, both reducing the emissions that are causing the problem and learning to adapt, because some of the climate change is inevitable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, staying with you, Michael Oppenheimer, is this happening faster than scientists thought, or has it always been realized that it was going to be felt about this time?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: There are two statements in the report among many which I will single out that are different from the last time we went through this six-and-a-half years ago.

Number one, the discovery that there are more areas, far more areas in the world where crop yields have declined due to climate change, and many fewer areas where crop yields have increased, and that’s a bad sign, because, as — as we heard in the setup piece, for many decades, crop yields had been increasing at 10 percent or 15 percent per decade.

That trend has come to an end, in fact, so there’s no way to be optimistic about it, unless we change what’s going on out there. And the other point I will — thing I will point to is health impacts. Again, more people are in trouble or dying due to heat waves than are avoiding disease because we’re having somewhat warmer winters. So the balance is certainly shifting already. We’re seeing that. We’re sure of it, and that puts a big question mark about the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Patricia Lankao, who is feeling the effects of this?

PATRICIA ROMERO LANKAO, National Center for Atmospheric Research: Many North Americans are already feeling the effects of this.

As you can — as we found, the glaciers are retreating, and this is affecting water resources on the West Coast of the U.S. We are also — as Michael already said, we are experiencing mortality due to heat waves, as we could see when heat waves affected — hit Europe, killing about 35,000 people, mostly elderly.

And this is a call for the U.S. We are usually used to the idea that only the poor and the future generations will be affected by climate change, but what we have found in this report is that the impacts of climate change are widespread and are substantial for many things we in the U.S. value, such as forests, water resources, and species of animals and of plants that we so much love because they make our landscapes beautiful and amenable to a better quality of life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Patricia Lankao, if you’re someone listening to this who hasn’t paid a lot of attention before now to climate change, hasn’t worried about it, thinking it’s far off in the future, what do you now start to think about?

PATRICIA ROMERO LANKAO: Well, what we need to start thinking about is not only climate change is having consequences for us and things we care about, but also that there are opportunities.

We evaluated many of the actions communities, water utilities and energy utilities, together with local governments in the U.S., are taking, and I see that that’s good news. We have challenges for sure. We know if that we do not act now to reduce the impacts, to reduce emissions and to also better prepare our communities to deal with these impacts, we will be negatively affected.

So there — there is a closing window of opportunity that we see we need to use and use it now. We need to act now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Oppenheimer, what are the most important things that need to be done now? I mean, clearly, there’s a lot of conversation on cutting back carbon emissions, greenhouse gas emissions. What should the main focus be now coming off of this report?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Well, my personal view is that the Obama administration has started the job of cutting emissions and ought to continue that by putting forth additional regulations which would basically eliminate carbon emissions from existing, coal-burning power plants.

Beyond that, what’s really important for this country is that we realize that our ability to cope with big climate events like Hurricane Sandy isn’t so good today. We’re having trouble dealing with today’s extreme events. How are we going to deal with more intense heat waves, potentially stronger tropical cyclones, and a higher sea level in the future if we can’t even handle today’s?

So very important for the government to get out there and get — help get Americans ready to deal with and cope with the climate challenges that are going to come ahead. And then the third thing would be leadership. The reason Americans are kind of uncertain about how much support they should give climate change is that, until recently, there hasn’t been much leadership on this issue and there’s still nothing out of Congress.

We need leadership from our governments at all levels, from cities up to the national government, to help us get together as a society, because this affects everyone, and organize to get this problem solved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Patricia Lankao, what do you say to those? Because we know there’s still a large degree of public skepticism about whether people need to be making sacrifices, whether there should be — there are job tradeoffs, for example. What do you say to folks who are still not sure that this is really urgent?

PATRICIA ROMERO LANKAO: Well, what I would say is that there are already opportunities and there are lots of innovations and experiments under way.

I am an expert on citizen climate change, and I have seen how local governments, communities and farmers are already introducing changes. For instance, we know that we have to have shelters to protect people when hurricanes hit our coasts.

We also know that we need to introduce conservation measures to protect our water resources when we are affected by droughts. And many cities in the U.S. have proved their leadership talents as innovators, not only in the mitigation arena, but also in the adaptation arena.

So, I have a kind of guarded optimism. I really believe in the abilities North Americans have to respond to this challenge. And I see win-win opportunities. And we have found many win-win opportunities, meaning actions that do not only protect us from climate change, but also put us on the international spot as leaders in the creation of new energy systems and systems to protect us from the impacts of climate change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Patricia Lankao, Michael Oppenheimer, thank you both.