U.S. Climate report: Time is now for Canada to take action on climate change
A new climate assessment report released this week gives a detailed and honest look at the present and future climate change for the United States. However, Canadians should sit up and take notice of this report and its contents, as they will apply equally to us as well.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
Climate change is something that's often seen as a future concern - that it isn't happening right now, but we definitely have to plan for its effects in the years to come. However, according to the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a now new report from the United States Global Change Research Program if that's really the case, the future is now.
The 2014 National Climate Assessment report, released just this week, lays all the cards on the table for how climate change is currently affecting the United States. Region by region for the country, it goes into detail about how summers are longer and hotter, while winters are shorter and warmer. Rainfall amounts are on the rise as the warmer atmosphere is able to store more water vapour, which is then raining back out in heavier and stronger downpours. Flooding, both along coastal regions and on the banks of inland rivers, is becoming more frequent and worse. Droughts are lasting longer and having more severe effects. Incidences of extreme weather - storms and tornadoes and hurricanes - aren't necessarily becoming more frequent, but the intensity of those that do occur is growing.
According to the report overview:
"Scientists who study climate change confirm that these observations are consistent with significant changes in Earth’s climatic trends. Long-term, independent records from weather stations, satellites, ocean buoys, tide gauges, and many other data sources all confirm that our nation, like the rest of the world, is warming. Precipitation patterns are changing, sea level is rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, and the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events are increasing. Many lines of independent evidence demonstrate that the rapid warming of the past half-century is due primarily to human activities."
"Multiple lines of independent evidence confirm that human activities are the primary cause of the global warming of the past 50 years. The burning of coal, oil, and gas, and clearing of forests have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40% since the Industrial Revolution, and it has been known for almost two centuries that this carbon dioxide traps heat. Methane and nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture and other human activities add to the atmospheric burden of heat-trapping gases. Data show that natural factors like the sun and volcanoes cannot have caused the warming observed over the past 50 years. Sensors on satellites have measured the sun’s output with great accuracy and found no overall increase during the past half century. Large volcanic eruptions during this period, such as Mount Pinatubo in 1991, have exerted a short-term cooling influence. In fact, if not for human activities, global climate would actually have cooled slightly over the past 50 years. The pattern of temperature change through the layers of the atmosphere, with warming near the surface and cooling higher up in the stratosphere, further confirms that it is the buildup of heat-trapping gases (also known as “greenhouse gases”) that has caused most of the Earth’s warming over the past half century."
Not only does the report give an open and honest account of what's going on right now, but it also gives some key insights into what we can expect from here on - especially if we continue to delay action on curbing greenhouse gases.
IMPLICATIONS FOR CANADA
For Canada, it's been quite some time since we've seen an official climate report from the government, with the last one was being from 2007. However, any Canadians who are rightly worried about the impacts we are seeing right now from climate change, and about what we can expect to see in the future, can also turn to this report for information, despite its focus on regions south of the Canada-U.S. border.
Straight from the report, here are the highlights and how they relate to Canada:
- For the Maritimes and Quebec, just as with the U.S. Northeast: Heat waves, heavy downpours, and sea level rise pose growing challenges to many aspects of life in the Northeast. Infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised. Many states and cities are beginning to incorporate climate change into their planning.
- Ontario and Manitoba are seeing impacts similar to those affecting the U.S. Midwest: Extreme heat, heavy downpours, and flooding will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation, air and water quality, and more. Climate change will also exacerbate a range of risks to the Great Lakes.
- In Saskatchewan and Alberta, with their similarity to the Great Plains states: Rising temperatures are leading to increased demand for water and energy. In parts of the region, this will constrain development, stress natural resources, and increase competition for water. New agricultural practices will be needed to cope with changing conditions.
- British Columbia's proximity to the U.S. Northwest will mean similar impacts for them: Changes in the timing of streamflow reduce water supplies for competing demands. Sea level rise, erosion, inundation, risks to infrastructure, and increasing ocean acidity post major threats. Increasing wildfire, insect outbreaks, and tree diseases are causing widespread tree die-off.
- Arctic regions are experiencing the same changes as Alaska and will face the same challenges: Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the nation, bringing widespread impacts. Sea ice is rapidly receding and glaciers are shrinking. Thawing permafrost is leading to more wildfire, and affecting infrastructure and wildlife habitat. Rising ocean temperatures and acidification will alter valuable marine fisheries.
- Rural communities are highly dependent upon natural resources that are affected by climate change. These communities also face particular obstacles in responding to climate change that increase their vulnerability to its impacts.
- Coastal lifelines, such as water and energy infrastructure, and nationally important assets, such as ports, tourism, and fishing sites, are increasingly vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surge, erosion, flooding, and related hazards. Socioeconomic disparities create uneven vulnerabilities.
WHAT CAN WE DO
The message of this report is clear. Continued research into climate change and its impacts is needed, but we must act soon - both to mitigate the worst effects and to adapt to what we will be unable to avoid.
For mitigation, we need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases our technologies produce by making them much more efficient, with the ultimate goal of weaning ourselves off of using fossil fuels for energy and transportation, and switching to cleaner, more sustainable and more responsible forms of energy production. What will that involve? Increases in solar and wind power for sure. Exploring new technologies for geothermal and tidal power. Smarter investments in nuclear power - including potential change-overs to thorium-based reactors or new designs for smaller, cheaper, safer reactors.
To adapt, we are going to need significant changes to infrastructure to keep storm surges at bay and channel potential flood waters more effectively. New agricultural practices will be needed that use less water and energy. Changes to how we use land and where we develop, as well as how our current cities and communities are structured and built. Switching over to practices that use energy more efficiently will be needed to reduce the drain on power grids, especially when production is impacted by the weather. That's just a small sampling.
DANGEROUS CO2 LEVELS: April 2014 has become a depressing new 'milestone' for carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, as it was the very first time the monthly average reached over 400 parts per million. Read the sobering report
Most importantly of all, we are going to have to adapt the way we think - to accept the reality of what we've done to the planet, to leave behind the notions of what we typically expect from the weather, the seasons and the climate, so that we can better deal with the changes that are to come, and to embrace the idea that we can change things for the better if we act now.