The next president of the United States will have plenty of guidance on how to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for sea-level rise and other climate change consequences. The question is: Does he or she want to use it?
Scientists and climate experts from the government, academia and the private sector, led by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, offered an assessment of the current climate science and released dozens of recommendations yesterday at a panel in Washington.
Ideas for how the next administration should approach global warming include addressing the emerging public health threats and building resilience in land-use planning. Experts released several papers that looked at clean energy research and development and at reforming and modernizing the electric sector.
The next president will have much more science at his or her fingertips — if he or she wants it. Scientific understanding about climate change has seen a rapid evolution even in the years since President Obama started his second term, said Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute.
He offered a grim picture on what scientists have learned. Much has gotten worse, he said, and the impacts of climate change not only are worse than scientists expected but are unfolding sooner than expected. For example, 2015 was the hottest year on record, with record-breaking temperatures nearly monthly.
But there are rays of hope, Field said, including signs that worldwide conditions are "generally empowering for the development for climate solutions." People are developing options for addressing the consequences of climate change, whether it’s the knowledge base about what’s needed to adapt or finding faster ways to transition to less carbon-intensive sources of energy.
Science is evolving quickly, Field said, with the emergence of new lines of inquiry like single-event attribution. Scientists are getting better at identifying whether climate change boosts the odds of certain types of extreme events, including heat waves and extreme precipitation events. Scientists also know more about the possible connection between the collapse of large ice sheets and extreme sea-level rise.
There’s also evidence that global economic growth can persist even as carbon dioxide emissions decrease, Field said. It strengthens the case for rapid, ambitious and sustained action to reduce emissions.
"It’s not to imply that CO2 emissions have peaked," he said. "But what we’re beginning to see is the disconnection between economic progress and CO2 emissions — something that is fundamentally important and fundamentally enabling to further progress in dealing with the climate challenges."
Dan Reicher, executive director of the Stanford Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance and a former assistant secretary of Energy, released a paper that called for tuning up federal clean energy incentives, like grants, loan guarantees and tax credits.
Government support is essential, he said in his report, but the big money for clean energy — tens of trillions of dollars globally over the next few decades — must come from the private sector. That includes major long-term investors like pension funds, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds and endowments. The next administration needs to move aggressively to help attract these investors to the clean energy table, he said.
There are stark differences on climate between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump, but that may not matter, several of the scientists at the event said — especially when it comes to investing in clean energy, Reicher said.
"You can set aside climate science, but you shouldn’t set aside the opportunity," he said.
If the next president fails to acknowledge the threat of climate change, the scientific community will have to highlight what Field called "co-benefits" of reducing emissions: improved health, air quality and reliability in low-emission energy systems.
"We’re going to make better choices if we acknowledge the importance of the science and we build on the science information," he said. "There are pathways to taking a lot of the steps that need to be taken that can start out independent of acknowledging the science.
"That being said, it is important to realize the scientific consensus on the nature of climate change and that the role of the human in it is really overwhelming," he said.
The next president will also have to address the health consequences of climate change, said Katherine States Burke, deputy director at the Center for Innovation in Global Health at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
There are already public health and national security threats, she said, including lives lost to 100-year floods and raging wildfires in the West, tens of thousands of deaths in heat waves in Europe and Russia, babies infected with Zika across the Americas, and deaths from starvation in countries like Malawi.
"Health, I think, is fast becoming the human face of climate change," she said. "Every day, we read about health emergencies that can be linked directly or indirectly to climate change. We need to connect the dots between a warming planet and these threats to human health and security."