Thursday, May 8, 2014

National Climate Assessment - An Exercise in Communicating Climate Change

Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.” So says the new U.S. National Climate Assessment released this week. This is the third such report, which was mandated by Congress in 1990. And the 12 findings are dire.

The report is the result of four years of work, where "more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee" compiled the latest state-of-the-science. Drafts of the report were "extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences."

The bottom line: Man-made climate change is a fact, it is here now, and it impacts every state in our country. Impacts will vary from region to region, so there can be increased droughts in some areas at the same time as increased flooding in others. Impacts, overwhelmingly negative, will be felt in every facet of our lives: health, transportation, energy, water use, ecosystem health, agriculture, and oceans. 

Climate trends include increasing temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and changes to extreme weather events and precipitation. Some of these changes can already be seen today, and the rate of these changes is likely to increase without action.

It's clear that human activity, primarily our reliance on fossil fuels and the resultant emissions of carbon to the climate system, is warming our planet. It's also clear that steps to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions are necessary - and those steps are long overdue. The National Climate Assessment provides information on what those steps can be.

Overall, the rollout (for lack of a better word) of the National Climate Assessment has been an improvement over previous communications of climate change. Rather than simply release the 841-page report (which is downloadable for those who want the details) and forget about it, they have created a snazzy new website appropriate for our tech-oriented (and attention span-challenged) populace. The website tries to make the voluminous data more accessible to the interested public, a definite plus. It allows viewers to review each of the 12 report findings, first with a short statement and then followed by more detailed information. For example, this is the first finding:

Global climate is changing and this is apparent across the United States in a wide range of observations. The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.

The text and graphs that follow are generally easy to follow, and better yet, are generally simple and interactive. The graphics-heavy presentation allows casual users to get the gist of the information, and given most of the public would fall into this category, this is a very good thing. Additional text and citations allow the more interested user to dig deeper into the information. Also a very good thing.

In addition to the website, graphics, and attempts to provide information on multiple levels, there has been a clear effort to reach out to the media. Most of the news outlets had some coverage. While the right wing outlets like Fox News, and even the right wing commentators on CNN, were predictably dismissive of the science, most news programming captured the unequivocal science basis and the urgency of action needed. This can be seen in both national  (e.g., Time) and local (e.g., Portland) news outlets.

Unconventional outlets, for example, the well known in climate circles Peter Sinclair and the blog Climate Science Watch also made an attempt to communicate the findings to the public. Scientific agencies that do climate research, for example, NOAA, also helped spread the word about the report. The administration even reached out to meteorologists (and other "weather presenters") to get the news out to the public.

Will it be enough? Will there suddenly be a push by the public to deal with made-made climate change?

Of course not. But each step taken is one more step closer to action. The public will be the ones who create the demand for action by policymakers (which is why the climate denial industry writes Op-Eds and blogs instead of doing any science). The National Climate Assessment is likely going to fall off the radar for most people as soon as beach season begins, but a concerted effort to keep communicating to the public - even if they are hesitant to listen - is the only way to go. 

That, and cool graphics.

[Note: All graphics presented here come from report]