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White House report warns how climate change will directly influence the lives of Americans

May 6, 2014 at 6:07 PM EST
In its most comprehensive report on climate change yet, the White House forecasts the likely, negative effects facing each of the eight regions in the U.S., from drought in the Southwest, to stronger storms in the Northeast. The administration is expected to cite the warnings when it lays out new regulations this summer. John Holdren, science advisor to the president, talks to Gwen Ifill.
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GWEN IFILL: The U.S. government released today its most comprehensive report on climate change yet, and the forecast is far from sunny.

GARY YOHE, Lead Author, National Climate Assessment: What keeps me up at night is a persistence across the population not to recognize that the old normal climate is broken, and we don’t know what the new normal climate is going to be.

GWEN IFILL: The Obama administration sought to show today that global warming is no longer an issue for the distant future, but instead the here and now.

Gary Yohe is lead author of the government’s new National Climate Assessment.

GARY YOHE: That lack of recognition and the inability of this community and decision-makers to communicate those risks to individuals unnecessarily puts economic assets at risk, unnecessarily puts human lives at risk, unnecessarily puts ecosystems at risk.

GWEN IFILL: The U.N. has already issued dire warnings about the negative effects worldwide of failing to reduce carbon emissions.

The new assessment zeroes in on damage within the United States. The report describes how results will be felt in eight regions across the country, from stronger storms in the Northeast, to wildfires and drought in the Southwest, to rising dangers from more powerful hurricanes in the Southeast.

The assessment also finds heavy rainfall has increased across the Eastern United States in the last half-century, and by 70 percent just in the Northeast.

Kathryn Sullivan, who runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said there’s an urgent need to act.

KATHRYN SULLIVAN, Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: We can, as we must, bring this assessment to life, really make sure it gets off the page, out of the ether, and into the policies, the plans and the practices that are adopted across our nation.

GWEN IFILL: The energy industry and some Republican senators today branded the report alarmist. But the administration is expected to cite the warnings when it lays out new regulations this summer to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants.

John Holdren is the president’s science adviser. I spoke to him a short time ago from the White House Briefing Room.

John Holdren, thank you for joining us.

Your report today talks about to residential rains torrential rains and rising sea levels, and yet you also say about a 2-degree increase in Fahrenheit in global warming. It doesn’t seem that sounds so minor would have such an outsized effect.

JOHN HOLDREN, Director, White House Office of Sciences and Technology Policy: Well, the thing one needs to understand about the global average temperature, it’s a little bit like the temperature of the body.

It’s really an index of the state of the whole climate system, and if your body temperature went up by two degrees Celsius, 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, you would know it was telling you something is seriously amiss in your body’s system. And, similarly, when that index, the average temperature of the Earth goes up by a couple of degrees, it is a really big deal.

It is indicating changes in circulation patterns, in patterns of rain and snow, in winds, ocean currents, and extremes of weather that are things that people really notice.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that’s interesting in your report is how you target exactly which areas of the United States will be affected how by what you say is the effect of the — of this global warming. Let’s walk through these regions one by one.

Let’s think about the Southeast, where — which is home to 80 million people in the United States.

JOHN HOLDREN: Sure.

Well, again, the thing that’s really new about this report is the way it breaks down the impacts of climate change, what’s happening and what’s projected to happen into different regions in the United States. In the Southeast, one of the big problems is that more and more of the precipitation is falling in extreme events. We understand why this is true scientifically, but it’s now being observed.

Like the 22 inches of rain that fell in 24 hours in the Florida Panhandle a few days ago, this is going to be a continuing problem in the Southeast, more moisture in the atmosphere, more of it falling in deluges. Another problem for much of the Southeast, the coastal regions, is rising sea level.

Sea level has been rising. It is continuing to rise, and it will do so for a long time to come, the total extent depending on the extent to which we succeed in reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases that are driving global climate change.

GWEN IFILL: How about in the Great Plains, which is our great national breadbasket in many ways?

JOHN HOLDREN: In the Great Plains, one of the things we are seeing, of course, is summer begins sooner and lasts longer. That longer growing vaccines would be an advantage, but it is offset by more extremes, again, more extreme deluges, more extreme heat waves. And that is going to be a continuing challenge in the Great Plains.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about the Southwest. We think of the Southwest as mountains and desert anyway, but does climate change have an outsized effect there?

JOHN HOLDREN: It does.

In the mountains, what happens is, first of all, more of the precipitation falls as rain, rather than as snow. Rain runs off more rapidly. That means, in the summer, when you are depending on snowmelt to continue to feed the rivers and, of course, the agriculture fields, there’s less snow to do that.

You also, because of the increased temperatures, have greater losses to evaporation, more water evaporating out of the soil and drying the soil out sooner. There are a variety of other factors that influence drought in the Southwest and in California. Both places are experiencing serious droughts at this point. And, again, that’s a pattern that we would expect to see more of under continuing climate change.

GWEN IFILL: You cite lots of examples of change, including the proliferation of mountain pine beetles killing trees, or coral bleaching, which is killing coral.

What I found interesting also, especially at this time of year, is the extension of the pollen production season that you’re saying is due to this as well.

JOHN HOLDREN: Yes, exactly. The longer growing seasons means a longer season for pollens. More people are experiencing allergies earlier and longer. So, there are some direct impacts on health, as well as the impacts of other dimensions of our environment.

GWEN IFILL: As you know, there has always been a debate about whether human activity is responsible for the majority of this kind of warming. In this report, have you reached that conclusion?

JOHN HOLDREN: Well, that conclusion has already been reached by many other bodies. It’s reaffirmed in this report.

Studies by the National Academy of Sciences, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, many other groups, have clearly established that the great bulk of the climate change we’re experiencing now is due to human activities, above all, burning fossil fuels and land use change, including deforestation.

Of course, we all know the climate has been changing for natural reasons for millions of years, but what we’re seeing now is, superimposed on gradual, natural climate change, we’re seeing more rapid human-imposed climate change dominating the situation and producing these impacts that this report spells out in such detail.

GWEN IFILL: As the Obama administration prepares to make decisions about carbon fuel emissions from power plants or about the XL Keystone pipeline, do you — how do you balance, how do you make the argument to balance economic loss vs. climate change action? How do you measure inaction vs. action in that context?

JOHN HOLDREN: Well, first of all, I would say that the Obama administration is not only prepared to make decisions, but has been making decisions.

The president almost a year ago, in June of 2013, rolled out a climate action plan based on his executive authorities, because it didn’t seem that the Congress was willing to take action. That climate action plan includes an element of reducing U.S. contributions to the emissions that are driving the problem.

It includes improving preparedness and resilience across communities all around the United States to better deal with climate change, reduce the vulnerabilities, and includes leadership in the international sphere to get the rest of the world cooperating with us to reduce the drivers of climate change and to better prepare for changes we can’t avoid.

That was already happening before this report. What this report helps us to do is to communicate to the American people just how climate change is influencing their lives where they live and work. That’s going to increase public support for taking action to reduce the pace and magnitude of climate change, and it’s also going to help the people make the decisions they need to make to reduce their vulnerability.

When it comes to balancing the economic factors in the situation, the key point I would make is that addressing climate change with sensible, cost-effective measures will be a lot less expensive than trying to deal with the impacts of climate change unmitigated.

GWEN IFILL: But how do you speak to the public opinion issue? You have seen the numbers I have seen. Many Americans don’t think it’s worth doing anything about right now. They’re not that worried.

JOHN HOLDREN: Well, you know, the way I read the polls, typically, 70 percent or more of Americans believe climate change is real, happening, doing harm, and the government should do more about it.

The problem is, when you ask them to rank the problems that worry them the most, climate change comes in rather low on the list. It’s behind jobs, the economy, immigration, crime, and many other things. I think one of the things this report will do, together with what people are observing all around them and seeing on their TV screens, is, it’s going to increase the salience of the climate change issue on the public’s priority list.

And I think we will see more public support in a vocal way for the government taking additional actions to reduce this problem, and indeed to do more in partnership with the private sector, all levels of government, state, local, nonprofit organizations, who are really trying to do this in an approach the president calls all hands on deck.

The federal government can’t do it alone. Business is going to play a big role. Universities are going to play a big role, but together we think we can get it done.

GWEN IFILL: John Holdren, White House science adviser, thank you so much for joining us.

JOHN HOLDREN: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.