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‘It’s happening, it’s now,’ says U.S. government report on climate change

On Friday, the federal government released its most dramatic report yet on the effects of climate change. According to scientists, the country is already experiencing serious consequences from rising global temperatures, including more frequent and severe storms, fires and flooding. John Yang talks to Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University.

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  • John Yang:

    The government issued its most dramatic report yet about climate change today, and it came with a dire warning.

    Scientists said the country is already reeling — feeling major effects of climate change and it has already cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars.

    The report, which was issued by 13 federal agencies, also highlights how climate change is expected to have a significant impact on the future of the economy.

    The report links extreme events like Hurricanes Maria and Harvey and longer, more intense, more frequent wildfire seasons. And scientists say there's more to come. The continental United States is already 1.8 degrees warmer than it was a century ago, and the temperature may rise by another 2.3 degrees by 2050.

    Unless more is done, the risks and impact of climate change are expected to shrink the U.S. economy 10 percent by century's end.

    David Easterling of NOAA, which released the report, suggested in a media call that climate change would damage the country's infrastructure, economy, and human health.

  • David Easterling:

    The global average temperature is much higher and is rising more rapidly than anything modern civilization has experienced, and this warming trend can only be explained by human activities.

  • John Yang:

    While almost no one will escape the effects of climate change, scientists say under-served and lower-income Americans as well as coastal communities will feel the brunt most immediately.

  • David Easterling:

    Future generations can expect to experience and interact with natural systems in ways that are much different than today. Without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, extinctions and transformative impacts on some ecosystems cannot be avoided.

  • John Yang:

    The assessment is a stark contrast with the views and policies of President Trump, who often denies or dismisses the role of climate change.

    Today, scientists wouldn't say whether the White House pushed to have the report released on the afternoon after Thanksgiving.

    With us now, Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University. He's a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a lead author of separate international climate reports issued by the United Nations.

    Mr. Oppenheimer, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Michael Oppenheimer:

    Happy to be here.

  • John Yang:

    What struck you? What's the most significant thing to you about this report?

  • Michael Oppenheimer:

    Well, the blaring headline message is that climate change is here, it's happening, it's now. Americans are already paying for it. They're already suffering from it. It's not an abstract problem that may come on us at some time decades into the future.

    The second point about that is, well, you can look on your TV screen and see it almost every day, California burning up due the wildfires, over the last couple of months hurricanes wreaking havoc on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Those were problems made worse by climate change already, and it's only going to intensify as we go into the coming decades, unless we get emissions of the greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide under control.

    Another clear message is that the world is interconnected. If the U.S. suffers from crop yield declines due to too much warming, then people go malnourished in Africa. If an electronic component supplier in Thailand is disrupted due to flooding, then our electronics industry that has to assemble the parts into a commercial product suffers and money is lost.

    The third message, which is really the most important one, is that we are way behind the eight ball, we're not doing enough to cut these emissions and bring the problem under control, and we're not doing enough to build our resilience to the inevitable impacts of climate change. In other words, we're doing little to adapt to the risk.

    This is a big problem. There's a big gap between what governments promised to do, for instance, in the Paris agreement, and what they're implementing. And even what they promised to do in the Paris agreement, well, there's a gap between that and what we — the countries would have to do to really bring the problem under control. So we're way behind the eight ball on all fronts right now.

  • John Yang:

    And, of course, the current president has pulled out of the Paris agreement. This is a president who has been skeptical, to say the least, about climate change.

    He tweeted earlier this week talking about the cold snap that a lot of the country is going through right now, saying: "Whatever happened to global warming?"

    You talked about the stark language in this report. Was there in any way a message, you think, a shot across the bow, a warning shot at skeptics of climate change?

  • Michael Oppenheimer:

    I think the skeptics really aren't a factor anymore. The science is so compelling and the consequences have been so vivid that in a way this has liberated to allow scientists doing these kinds of assessments to really say I think what's been on their minds for the whole time.

    I think the scientific community, while it's done yeoman's service, has also to a certain degree been a little timid. And, in this report, in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a couple of weeks ago, you see the clear messages coming through, unvarnished, unhidden by fancy scientific language. They're calling it like it is, for a change.

  • John Yang:

    You talked about the promises of the Paris accord.

    Some states, notably California and other states, are trying to go it alone, even though, in the United States, the federal government has pulled out. They're going to try to go on their own.

    Is that enough, for individual states to have efforts?

  • Michael Oppenheimer:

    This report goes out of its way to note the very strong efforts that some states and cities and other localities are making, both on the emissions reduction front and in trying to adapt to the risks.

    But it's not enough. An uncoordinated response taking place in hundreds or even thousands of states and localities just will never get us to where we need to go. This is a problem which needs national leadership. And that's exactly what's missing in the Trump administration response, which is basically a yawn at this point.

    But it's also true that other countries really have to step up, do all they can on the emissions reduction front and on the adaptation front to make their populations safe. Very few countries are doing as much as needs to be done right now.

  • John Yang:

    The report also seems to take special note or a special warning that the effects are uneven, that the poorer communities are going to be affected more, according to the report, and coastal communities will be adversely affected more, according to the report.

  • Michael Oppenheimer:

    Well, for the poor, it's really a double whammy, unfortunately.

    First of all, they don't have the resources to build the resilience and combat the possible impacts of climate change. And second of — secondly, a lot of the poorest communities are where the impacts of climate change, where climate change is going to really hit the worst.

    So they're going to get the worst effects, and they can't defend themselves against it. So, for instance, the Southeastern part of the United States, where incomes lag really compared to the whole country, is going to suffer some of the biggest effects in terms of extreme heat and humidity, reductions in labor productivity, and consequences along the coast.

    Even in relatively wealthy areas of the Southeast — let's take Miami, a well-built up area — you're seeing coastal flooding happening not just in big storms like hurricanes, but on the daily tidal cycle in many areas. So, they're getting flooding in the streets all the time.

    This kind of flooding, called nuisance flooding, used to happen maybe five, 10 times a year. Now it's happening maybe 30 or 40 times a year. That's due to sea level rise. What causes sea level rise? Global warming.

  • John Yang:

    Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, thank you very much.

  • Michael Oppenheimer:

    Thank you.

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