U.S. shows progress in adapting to warming, IPCC finds -- but federal government remains stymied by politics

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released yesterday affirmed that man-made warming is already here and called on countries to act immediately to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases and plan for changes that are now inevitable.

But while the second part of the IPCC's fifth assessment report spoke in stark terms of the effect warming will likely have on food supply, global health and the livelihoods of populations in every region of the globe, it did acknowledge that some governments have taken steps over the past seven years to harden infrastructure and plan for the future.

Among them is the United States.

Despite continued partisan wrangling over the existence of man-made climate change, which has made comprehensive legislation impossible, the world's largest historic greenhouse gas emitter has made strides on adaptation since the previous report was released in 2007, IPCC said. These have been propelled mostly by local communities responding to changes that affect them, though the federal government has taken steps recently to support those efforts.

The United States is grouped with Canada and Mexico in a section of the report titled "North America," though distinctions are made between policies in different countries.


"In North America, governments are engaging in incremental adaptation assessment and planning, particularly at the municipal level," the report's summary states. "Some proactive adaptation is occurring to protect longer-term investments in energy and public infrastructure."

The report uses Energy Department data to show that owners of U.S. energy infrastructure have turned to supply-and-demand-side efficiency, improvements to the power grid and other strategies in recent years to respond to more heat waves and extreme weather.

When it comes to public infrastructure, one of the direst future risks raised by the report is climate-driven sea-level rise, accompanied by coastal flooding and higher storm surges. Sea-level rise poses a threat to billions of dollars of transportation infrastructure along the coastlines of North America, the report says. Wetlands and freshwater supply are also affected.

Here, as in other areas, municipal governments have spearheaded efforts to plan for climate change.

"Climate change policies have been motivated by concerns for local economic or energy security and the desire to play leadership roles," the IPCC report said.

The report singles out New York City as a "global leader" on climate change adaptation, highlighting former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $20 billion plan instituted in the wake of 2012's Superstorm Sandy. Four Florida counties -- Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach -- in 2010 established their Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, an agreement to jointly develop and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies in a region uniquely vulnerable to sea-level rise.

But while local communities have pioneered adaptation in the United States, the report notes that the Obama administration has also taken steps to support those efforts and to protect federal operations.

The White House directed federal agencies to begin writing their own adaptation plans early in President Obama's first term, and the president's Climate Action Plan last year "enhanced" federal support for adaptation in part through the creation of a task force of state, local and tribal government officials.

The task force, which was formally launched in November, will advise the federal government about the kinds of climate-related issues facing communities (Greenwire, Nov. 1, 2013). "That input will help refine the federal government's policies to help local communities," said Forbes Tompkins, an analyst with the World Resources Institute, in an interview yesterday.

The IPCC report -- which covered actions through August of last year -- notes that the federal government does not provide states with money to help them implement their climate adaptation plans. But in February, Obama asked Congress to approve $1 billion in funding to shore up local resiliency efforts. And in March, the White House launched an initiative to make federal data, mapping and information resources available to cities and states to help them with planning.

The so-called Climate Data Initiative includes commitments from private corporate partners to help make federally collected data accessible to the public and to other policymakers (Greenwire, March 19).

"It's at a national level, but with localized information," said Tompkins. "So I think that offers a unique tool for a lot of the communities that are at the front lines of climate change impacts."

Aspects of the resilience fund and the data initiative will initially target coastal areas susceptible to flooding but will expand their focus later to other communities grappling with different climate challenges. Both programs drew some political fire from Republicans on Capitol Hill when they were first announced, though not as much as U.S. EPA regulations for carbon dioxide and methane.

The third and final part of the fifth assessment report is due on April 13 and will focus on emissions. It is unclear whether researchers will determine that the United States and Canada have made as much progress in that area since the 2007 report.

Predictable takes on Capitol Hill

Democratic lawmakers yesterday pointed to the IPCC report as the latest warning that Congress must act to limit emissions and invest in adaptation.

"The time is late," said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with Democrats. "We can no longer ignore warnings that climate change already is happening and that unless we act in a bold way, the worst is yet to come." He urged the Senate to pass a bill he introduced last year with Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would tax carbon.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the report is "another reminder that we must act to protect our communities from the worsening effects of climate change."

"We have already seen so many changes here in the U.S., including rising seas, shifting fisheries and increases in drought, flooding and wildfire," said Whitehouse, a co-chairman of several congressional task forces that advocate for climate action. "The IPCC makes clear that these dangers are likely increasing. I hope my colleagues in Congress will take this warning from knowledgeable and independent scientists seriously and wake up to the realities of climate change."

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) announced that he planned to introduce legislation later in April that would facilitate the sharing of adaptation "best practices" between federal and non-federal planners and facilitate regional planning.

And showing the balance between the need for federal, state and local action, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the ranking member on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, coincidentally hosted a public forum on climate change yesterday in Dallas.

"While climate change is an issue that must be addressed by the federal government, first and foremost, I am a Texan, and climate change's impacts and effects will be felt locally," Johnson said in her opening remarks, which cited the IPCC report. "From increased drought in the Panhandle to concerns over extreme flooding along our coasts and rivers to the increased risk of wildfires across the state, climate change is an issue that we cannot ignore. Not only will climate change affect the Texas economy, it will impact Texans on a personal level."

Elgie Holstein of the Environmental Defense Fund said the IPCC report showed that "clearly the federal role could be expanded dramatically." Both the Obama administration and Congress should look for ways to assist communities in better preparing, she said.

But communities must also help themselves, Holstein said. Some state and local governments have adopted policies that limit the extent to which climate change can be considered in planning future investments -- or bar its inclusion outright.

"The IPCC report underscores the need to set aside that kind of wrangling in favor of some clearheaded thinking and planning about the actual impacts we are and will continue to be experiencing from the greenhouse gas emissions that have already been released into the atmosphere," he said.

But Republicans panned the report, arguing that the U.N. scientific panel had barred dissenting scientists from giving input.

"The IPCC report is another effort to scare people into believing in man-made global warming despite the 15-year pause in temperature increases," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

Skeptics like Inhofe frequently argue that a slowdown in the rate of increase of world surface temperatures since 1998 shows that concern about climate change is overblown. But the National Academy of Sciences and others have said repeatedly that although the first decade of the 21st century did not match the rate of warming seen in the last decade of the 20th century, it did show continued warming.

"A short-term slowdown in the warming of Earth's surface does not invalidate our understanding of long-term changes in global temperature arising from human-induced changes in greenhouse gases," said NAS in a recent plain-language report published with its British counterpart, the Royal Society.

The conservative Heartland Institute, meanwhile, countered with its own report by scientists skeptical of man-made climate change. The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change's paper argued that human emissions play a negligible role in driving warming and that moderate warming might actually be a boon to public health.

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